WITH feral deer on the verge of becoming Australia's next rabbit plague a national plan has been released to control their growing numbers and change their reputation from a cute novelty to a destructive pest.
In the past 20 years, Australia's deer population has exploded from 200,000 to upwards of 2 million, mostly along the east coast, leading to a significant uptick in their collective environmental and agricultural impact.
Many landholders have never seen a deer and the few they have laid eyes on are considered a cute novelty, but if left uncontrolled deer populations can increase by 34 to 50 per cent every year and scientists predict that without intervention they could inhabit the entire continent.
The draft National Feral Deer Action Plan has three goals - stopping the spread of larger populations, eradicating small populations and protecting significant environmental or agricultural sites from their impacts.
The five-year plan, which is open to public feedback, states the population had grown way beyond the means of recreational hunters to control and flagged the need for developing lethal baits, a national containment buffer, a network of community control groups and a national awareness program.
National Feral Deer Management coordinator Annelise Wiebkin said proactive collaboration and cooperation was the only way to effectively control or eradicate the "elusive" pest.
"They move quickly across multiple properties every day, so if there is a single property in an area that is not effectively managing them, they'll seek harbour there and repopulate," Ms Wiebkin said.
"We've had decades to research and develop tools to control other pests like rabbits and pigs. We haven't had that for deer, so while those tools are being developed, working together strategically is our best way forward."
Ted Rowley, a cattle farmer near Jindabyne in the NSW Snowy Mountains region, said remembers spotting a deer on his property 15 years ago and thinking nothing of it.
Now he and his neighbours are battling thousands of deer, which had grown to plague proportions and descended from the mountains onto their paddocks every night.
"We were losing 50 per cent of our pasture to the deer," Mr Rowley said.
"Then there is the biosecurity risk. They carry 15 diseases common to domestic farm animals, including foot and mouth disease and the internal parasite liver fleck."
Mr Rowley has accepted deer will never be eradicated from his region and controlling them will be a lifelong obligation.
"If you don't have deer, you sure as hell don't want them," he said.
A national containment zone will aim to stop the westward spread of deer, while an awareness program will encourage people in areas without deer to report any sightings.
Invasive Species Council chief executive Andrew Cox said deer were like oversized-goats, eating every bit of vegetation and the ability to inhabit a variety of habitats.
"We've got six different species in Australia and they're all different enough that they could adapt to every habitat niche, including the arid zones," Mr Cox said.
"The deer plague has already taken over most natural areas on the east coast... implementing this national plan is our best shot at avoiding wall to wall deer across the continent."
Deer were already costing farmers "hundreds of millions of dollars every year", while doing untold damage to the nation's most sensitive ecosystems.
"They overgraze and trample native grasslands and ring-bark native shrubs and trees, they cause erosion and degrade water quality by wallowing in wetlands and streams, impacting the homes of native species like the platypus," Mr Cox said.
The draft plan explicitly stated recreational hunting was no longer an effective control method, but did highlight hunters had an important role to play
"In Tasmania, farmer control and recreational hunting of feral deer have slowed population growth, but the growth is still around 11 per year - at this rate, the population doubles every 7 to 12 years," the report stated.
"Recreational hunters [should] consider becoming a volunteer shooter for a local feral deer control program that seeks to strategically coordinate efforts to reduce a target number of feral deer in a timeframe."